World Art Day: What's it like to work in Australia's leading galleries?

By Anabel Dean (freelance)

What’s it like to be a keeper of cultural heritage in Australia’s leading art museums? Ahead of World Art Day on 15 April, we tell the story of three Trinity alumni who have carved out careers as some of the country’s top curators.

The purple noon's transparent might
The purple noon's transparent might, Arthur Streeton (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

Jane Clark – MONA

It isn’t the pickled platypus, or fossilised Frenchman’s finger, but a painting that best encapsulates Jane Clark’s (TC 1977) love of her career as a curator. 

Seeing The purple noon’s transparent might for the first time, lifted out of its frame at the National Gallery of Victoria, was like watching Arthur Streeton actually paint the work. 

Observing daylight on brushstrokes, unpicking the mythology, Jane was immediately transported to the banks of the Hawkesbury River where, in 1896, Streeton claimed he’d painted the masterpiece over two days in temperatures of almost 40 degrees. 

‘The work went from being a sort of square, handsome, chocolate-boxy picture to an astounding work of art – one of Australia’s great paintings – and it transformed my way of thinking about the physicality of art objects,’ Jane remembers. 

The work was just one revelation in a richly rewarding career that catapulted the University of Melbourne Fine Arts Honours graduate into curatorial roles at the NGV, Sotheby’s in Australia, and finally, in 2007, to Australia’s largest private museum, the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart. 

Curators are now influential tastemakers with far-reaching impact in the art world. Dreaming up groundbreaking exhibitions can be close to an art form in itself for curators who act, not only as the custodians of historic reliquary, but as protagonists launching artistic careers, injecting new life into the art scene, giving voice to a range of practitioners and, sometimes, advocating for change in the merger between art and politics.  

Jane came to the cavernous interiors of Mona from Sotheby’s, having worked through the booming art sale years from 1994 to 2007, when nearly every auction brought forth never-before-seen objects of awe. There were sales for Sidney Nolan’s estate; the Foster’s and Sir David Davies collections; and extraordinary discoveries such as the 9 by 5 cigar-box ‘impressions’, Charles Conder’s Australian sketchbooks and a French flower market by Ethel Carrick Fox. 

‘It was the era of the highest price paid at an Australian auction and there were amazing thrills in handling the works all the time,’ Jane says. ‘You just never knew what was going to happen next.  

‘Every day, somebody had an artwork in the boot of their car and sometimes we’d literally get the screwdriver out to peel the backing off a painting, hoping to find some wonderful piece of information that would double the value of the work.’  

Before Sotheby’s, Jane was curator of Australian art at the NGV, where Monday afternoons were regularly spent with a conservator in the storage area, unearthing the secrets of works that, in some cases, had not been closely examined for more than 40 years.  

Times have changed, though, and now there are questions about whether some objects should be kept in museums. ‘At Mona, for example, there are ancient Egyptian mummies, and some people may ask if we should be displaying human remains at all. I think I probably struggle with this sort of question more than some of my colleagues because I'm the one that's most often dealing with the “old” stuff.’ 

Jane is one of the few museum curators in the world who will blithely declare they write ‘art wank’. The moniker for the pithy electronic tablet essays used at Mona, instead of wall labels, is intended to be ironic but it is also unapologetic. This is a museum of ideas: a place of cabinets filled with curiosities, of things and of minds. It’s a perfect fit for somebody with Jane’s ‘endlessly inquisitive fascination for objects’.  

The question of who speaks from the podium is another element that has changed. Does a curator of European extraction have more historical expertise about an object in their care than an Indigenous Australian descendant of the people who made it? It wasn't so long ago that men in periwigs considered Aboriginal culture a stagnant science rather than a living and constantly evolving culture in existence for thousands of years.  

Jane Clark
Jane Clark

Shonae Hobson – National Gallery of Victoria

Shonae Hobson (TC 2015) is a southern Kaantju woman from the tiny community of Coen, on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula, who first came to Melbourne for an exhibition by her artist mother Naomi Hobson. She returned, in 2014, to study art history and anthropology as a Bachelor of Arts undergraduate at the University of Melbourne.  

‘I just really fell in love with this city and knew that this was a place that I wanted to pursue my studies,’ she says. Trinity College nurtured personal growth while providing access to opportunities and friendships with like-minded individuals who were also a long way from home.  

Shonae became a curator of Indigenous art at the NGV in March this year. She had spent the previous two years as the inaugural First Nations curator at Bendigo Art Gallery where she brought Australia’s first major survey of contemporary Indigenous Australian fashion to life in an exhibition titled Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion (2020). 

‘This is not just a job for me,’ Shonae explains. ‘It’s my everyday lived experience. Being a First Nations person, telling the history of my people, and working in collaboration with First Nations communities, it’s an integral part of who I am. It’s important to recognise that our people have a very different way of working, which doesn’t always align with the Western way of thinking. 

‘I feel that I have a very important responsibility to ensure that our voices are represented in the museum space. The role of an Indigenous curator is an important one, as we are the conduits between our community and the public. My role is as much about educating as it is about opening the door for other Indigenous voices, to challenge dominant narratives and reinforce powerful messages of representation and visibility within the colonial landscape.’ 

Shonae Hobson
Shonae Hobson (Image by Fred Kroh)

Alison Inglis – University of Melbourne

The belief in education leads back to the University of Melbourne with Associate Professor Alison Inglis (TC 1977), who is coordinator of the Master of Art Curatorship program. Her curatorial experience began at Trinity, assisting the celebrated art academic and Senior Common Room member, Professor Sir Joseph Burke, in cataloguing the College art collection which was, then, scattered throughout the building.  

‘Looking back, I realise it was a terrific thing to sit at breakfast every morning in the Dining Hall, looking at these different and remarkable moments in history presented through the artistic style of the portraits on the walls [at Trinity],’ Alison says. ‘It was a reinforcement of the enormous pleasure I derived from doing an undergraduate art history degree that sharpened the sense of the possibility within the subject.’ 

After she completed her degree, Alison was offered a university teaching job, and the die was cast. Academia turned out to be a vibrant and energetic space in which to learn, interpret and communicate ideas about art.  

A combination of interests in history, collecting and conservation lead to invitations to serve on museum boards (including the NGV, Heide Museum of Modern Art, the Duldig Studio and Museums Victoria), and to her appointment as Emeritus Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria in 2010. 

Working with these remarkable collections only reinforced the power of curating.  

‘If you love art, it’s a great challenge to bring objects together in a visual conversation that communicates in a more powerful way than, perhaps, words alone can,’ says Alison. ‘To open that excitement up to others is a really wonderful thing.’ 

Alison Inglis
Alison Inglis

What does it take to make a good curator?  

‘Curiosity,’ says Jane. ‘And I think there’s something almost performative in sharing your passion for created objects: objects that pose questions about how we see the world, from artefacts that have long outlived their human makers to brand new artworks created on your watch. It’s probably worth understanding from the outset that you’ll never know all the answers.’ 

By Anabel Dean

This article first appeared in issue #90 of Trinity Today.

14 Apr 2022
Category: People